BRADENTON, Fla. – Thunder outfield hopeful Cody Johnson remembers Nov. 19, 2010, the day he was traded.
Atlanta’s top draft pick in 2006 – the 24th player taken – was, to his surprise, sent to the Yankees system in one of those winter deals that can turn a few heads. If all goes well, the Thunder and Yankees may find the 6-foot-4, 240-pound, 23-year-old native of Panama City, Fla., a steal.
Johnson admits he liked the Yankees system from the start.
“I got a call from Kurt Kemp (Atlanta’s Director of Player Development), and he told me I was traded to the Yankees,’’ Johnson said. “I didn’t know how to feel or what to say. Then, that night, Mr. (Brian) Cashman called me, welcomed me to the organization and told me what to expect.
“It really made me feel good. This was the general manager of the New York Yankees, with a lot on his plate, taking time out of what had to be a busy day to call me. It made an impression.’’
Johnson, in his five seasons in the Braves system, made quite an impression. On the positive side, he battered Class-A pitching, swatting 26 homers at Rome (Ga.) of the South Atlantic League in 2008 and 32 with Myrtle Beach a step up in the Carolina League in 2009.
But he wasn’t selective at the plate, and struck out 177 times at Rime and 171 at Myrtle Beach. It was feast or famine, and Johnson, who can play first base and the corner outfield spots, knows why.
“I was getting geared up for that one pitch that I could hit for power and not taking any kind of consistent approach at the plate,’’ Johnson said. “I cost myself.’’
Make that dearly during the 2010 season, in which he batted just .189 (44-for-233) at Class-AA Mississippi, striking out 114 times in 233 at-bats. His five-year Atlanta statistics featured 629 strikeouts in 1,613 at-bats and an OPS of just .320.
So it was not surprising the Braves were looking to cut their ties with Johnson, nor was it stunning the Yankees were willing to take a chance on him.
“If the Yankees can rework what Johnson does at the plate, they really will have gotten something,’’ said a scout from another American League team. “For the price they paid (reportedly cash considerations, it’s a great gamble for the Yankees.’’
One which offers a new start and new approach for Johnson. In the Thunder camp the first few weeks, Johnson has hit his share of long balls, but he has been patient, is starting to foul off pitches and working on a whole new approach.
“I know my power will play anywhere,’’ said Johnson, who is battling for a spot on the Thunder roster and will appear in Trenton, if not at season’s start, soon after. “Right now, however, I’m not even worried about that.
“If I don’t hit, what power I have won’t mean anything. I’ll get sent home from here as well. I have to develop a consistent approach. I’ve had a few good spurts, but nothing like I need. I’ll take walks, singles and doubles right now, then the power will come.’’
What differences does he see in the Yankees system as compared to the Braves.’
“Here, the coaches really want to work with every player, give everyone an even chance to make it, whether you signed for five-million dollars, five-thousand or a plane ticket. It’s been positive. It’s been fun.
“With the Braves, it was more like do your own thing. If you make it, you make it, if you don’t, you don’t.’’
Farm systems take different approaches. Atlanta has found success with what it does, but Johnson is clearly a better fit with the Yankees and their approach.
“They keep working with me to be consistent in my approach to the plate, and I am working to get there with that. It’s such as positive atmosphere. I look at the players around me I can see winning teams.
“Along with development, you want to win in the minors before you get to the big leagues. You learn winning, and it’s much for fun to come to the park.’’
THUNDER RETURN OR NOT: Last week, the Yankees optioned right-hander Ryan Pope to the Class-AA Thunder. Yet, that doesn’t assure the 24-year-old, who was 4-6, 4.20 with 17 saves for the Thunder in 2010, is coming back to Trenton.
He remained in the Yankees clubhouse for several days before his move to “across the street’’ actually was set to take place.
“We’ll see what happens,’’ said Pope, who was married over the winter. “All I can control is how I pitch. If I start back with the Thunder, so be it.’’
Pope made progress in his first season as a closer. He has the approach to succeed in that role, at Trenton, or Triple-A Scranton
Baselines is providing daily spring-training reports from its annual trip to the Thunder camp in Tampa, Fla., last week. Comments are welcomed below, or at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at @jedleyq.